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What's Really Important for Early Literacy?

With kindergarten becoming increasingly academic, and with the introduction of Common Core Standards, how can you help your child with literacy while also preserving playtime?

Rachel McClary

Published on: September 22, 2015

Starting grade school can be unnerving for first-time students and parents: a big, new school building to navigate, new expectations and many unknowns. Will my child make friends? Get over her shyness? Settle down at her desk? Eat her lunch? These are common concerns.

Many parents of kindergartners today have an additional worry: Should my child be reading?

“Getting kindergartners ready for elementary school does not mean substituting academics for playtime, forcing children to master first-grade ‘skills’ or relying on standardized tests to assess children’s success,” stated the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) in 1996.

But since then, kindergarten has become increasingly academic, leading many to view kindergarten as the new first grade.

A recent report by the Alliance for Childhood and Defending the Early Years titled “Reading Instruction in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose” raises new concerns about the changing nature of kindergarten since the introduction of the Common Core State Standards. The report places particular emphasis on the expectation that, by the end of kindergarten, children will be able to “read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding” and draws attention to the absence of the phrase “with prompting and support,” which precedes other standards.    

New standards

The Common Core standards were adopted by Washington state in 2011, and standards for English language arts and mathematics were fully incorporated into the state learning standards during the 2014–15 school year. Common Core attempts to standardize expectations for children’s educational achievements at the end of each grade level, but does not dictate how teachers achieve these goals.

To understand when a child needs to learn to read — including when the brain is most primed for such development — we can look to research and a variety of education case studies. If your child at age 5 or 6 has little or no interest in sounding letters into words and progressing through the books known as level readers, this research will reassure you.

Sebastian Suggate, a professor of psychology who teaches at the Alanus University of Arts and Social Sciences in Bonn, Germany, and who studied early childhood reading in 2007, found no solid evidence of long-term gains for children who were taught to read in kindergarten. Children who learn to read later do just as well in scholastic measurements by the time they are 11 as those who were taught to read at age 5.

In Finland, where students consistently rank in the top 10 on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scale, formal reading instruction begins when children are 7 years old, when they enter school after years of free universal day care through age 5 and a year of preschool/kindergarten at age 6. This system is based on the belief that children learn best through play until the age of 7 and will therefore enter school with an eagerness to learn.

This approach rings true for me: My experience as a parent and early education teacher has shown me that children do not need to be drilled to learn to read. Early reading is highly dependent on foundational skills. Many children will learn to read by the age of 6 as a natural progression from emergent literacy or imitating reading and writing behavior.  Many schooling philosophies, including the Montessori approach, are based on a child-led path to literacy. My own children learned in this way, and both have reading ages way beyond their years. Of course, some children will still need specialist support, but I believe pushing children before they are ready creates a negative attitude toward reading that is difficult to reverse.

Jason Yeatman, assistant professor at the University of Washington’s Institute of Learning and Brain Sciences (I-LABS), explains that in brain development, there is substantial variability in the rate and timing of maturation from one child to the next. “Particularly when we look at the brain’s reading circuitry, children’s growth rates are quite heterogeneous,” Yeatman says. “A one-size-fits-all model of education is surely inferior to a model that tailors instruction to an individual’s needs.”

Advocating for a child-led approach to literacy does not mean that literacy concepts should not be introduced early — they should be, most experts agree. With an early introduction, students who might struggle or lack foundational language skills (which can impede reading) can be identified and helped. Early literacy introduction is, however, very different from a performance-focused environment in which kids are constantly measured and drilled.

Play is the way

Research suggests that the best way to promote foundational literacy is through play. A number of studies point to greater gains for children attending play-based preschool compared to preschools with an academic focus. The Alliance for Childhood report cites, among others, a German longitudinal study in the 1970s comparing play-based and highly directed kindergartens. Children attending play-based programs excelled beyond the other group in all 17 measures. As a result, German kindergartens returned to a play-based format.

In play-based kindergartens and preschools, teachers intentionally design language and literacy experiences that help prepare children to become fluent readers. Teachers observe children engaged in meaningful experiences and then create authentic documentation of growth and progress.

Yet in many elementary-school kindergartens, reading goals encourage teachers to teach to the test and focus on straight academics versus play. A recent study by University of Virginia researchers found that in 2006, kindergarten teachers spent as much time on literacy activities as on mathematics, science, social studies, music and art combined.

With the pressure of test scores and many competing demands of kindergarten classrooms, the ability for children to build literacy at a natural pace could be at risk.

But remember, when parents are worried, they often project this onto their children. And there is much that we can do at home to build the right environment and attitude toward literacy.

What to do at home

  • Read together every day. Early literacy experts Sue Palmer and Ros Bayley recommend preschool children share five stories a day, returning to familiar books until they can “read along.” Keep it fun, not a chore. 
  • Eat dinner together to promote important skills for reading, writing and comprehension. Encourage discussion, taking turns, listening and telling stories about your day.
  • Sing together and learn rhymes. These help children to recognize rhyme, rhythm and patterns in language.
  • Seek words and letters in the environment, pointing out words on common signs.
  • Model being a reader. Give your child opportunities to see you reading and writing by writing notes and lists with your child, keeping a notice board in your kitchen and showing children that books are to be treasured.
  • Play games that help your child discriminate between two sounds. For example, hide two instruments or sound-making toys behind your back and ask your child to guess which you are playing; or go on a walk together to find different sounds.

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